Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was an American founding father, statesman, diplomat, inventor, writer, and newspaperman who pioneered many civic institutions in the American colonies, such as the postal service, volunteer fire department, and libraries. Franklin believed in the virtues of contributing to the community and being a model of an upstanding citizen through one's actions. He's famous for having edited Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the "Declaration of Independence" and his kite experiment that proved lightning is electricity. He was mostly self-educated and received many honorary degrees throughout his lifetime.

Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin

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Table of contents

    Benjamin Franklin, portrait of Benjamin Franklin, StudySmarterBenjamin Franklin was a learned man of papers. Wikimedia Commons.

    Benjamin Franklin: Biography

    On January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. Benjamin Franklin was their tenth child and last son to Josiah, who fathered over a dozen children. As a child, he worked at his father's soap shop and finished his formal schooling at age ten. Young Franklin was an avid reader and writer. From an early age, Benjamin Franklin proved himself a resourceful and capable learner.

    At his father Josiah Franklin's urging, he apprenticed at his older brother James' print shop. Franklin wanted to submit writing for his brother's newspaper but James declined, feeling the young Benjamin Franklin was too young to work as a columnist. Franklin persisted anyways and wrote a series of letters under the pseudonym Mrs. Silence Dogood. The letters were popular in his brother's latest paper, the New England Courant, and were openly discussed in town. When his brother learned the truth, their relationship soured, and Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at age seventeen.

    In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin met Governor Sir William Keith who offered to send him to England to buy printing equipment. Keith ultimately didn't follow through on his offer, and the teenage Franklin found work as a typesetter in London. After a couple of years of working and saving money, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726. In 1729, Franklin started a printing business with a friend and bought the paper The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin regularly submitted his own column, establishing his reputation as a witty and knowledgable intellectual, frequently commenting wryly on local social movements and events. It became one of the most popular newspapers in the British American colonies.

    On September 1, 1730, Franklin married Deborah Read. They had two children, and additionally, Franklin recognized his illegitimate son William, and he raised him with the rest of his family.

    Illegitimate child - a child born to parents who are not married.

    Franklin continued to publish under different pseudonyms. His most popular effort was Poor Richard's Alamanac (1732-1758) under his pseudonym Richard Saunders.

    An almanac is a yearly publication that focuses on weather, astronomy statistics, and data, along with important dates and a variety of information like maps, forecasts, and proverbs. Despite the informative premise, Benjamin Franklin understood that most people read Almanacs for entertainment. His character and created author, Richard Saunders, antagonized almanac authorship while providing a mix of satirical and serious information.

    Famous adages of Franklin's are still in use today, such as "A fish and a visitor stink in three days." Almanac authors usually had a local following and no competition. As Saunders, he jokingly predicted the death of Titan Leed, an established almanac author, concluding that he was now justified in filling the void left behind. Titan Leeds took the bait and publicly commented on the shenanigans of Franklin's alter ego, only to help propel the popularity of Poor Richard's Alamanac, selling over 10,000 copies a year.

    The rivalry would continue posthumously for Leeds. In the following edition, Saunders included a letter from Leeds' ghost affirming his correct prediction.1

    Benjamin Franklin had a prolific career and was heavily invested in his community. His status as a newspaperman gave him far-reaching access and influence. He was a proponent of public services and was known for the founding of the first of many organizations that are now commonplace. Franklin started the Library company in 1731, which became the colonies' first library. Investors bought books, and customers could subscribe to borrow books at the fraction of the cost to buy one. In 1736 he assisted with the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia. In 1743, he organized the American Philosophical Society that promoted scientific research and public education. In 1740 he founded the University of Pennsylvania.

    Benjamin Franklin was recognized for his civic engagement and public intellectualism, earning several honorary degrees. In 1753 Harvard and Yale separately awarded him a Master of Arts degree. In 1756 he received a Master of Arts degree from the College of William and Mary. And in 1762, Oxford University of England awarded him an honorary doctorate.

    Facts About Benjamin Franklin's Death and Legacy

    On April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin died from complications of pleurisy at his home in Philadelphia.

    Pleurisy - inflammation of the lungs

    Despite not going to church, Franklin was a major proponent of the Puritan virtues of good character and hard work. Throughout his books, newspapers, and columns Franklin emphasized the importance of these virtues. So much so that they are now very much considered American traits. Many adages from his Poor Richard's Almanac are still in use today.

    While Benjamin Franklin did own a few slaves throughout his lifetime, he ultimately freed them and renounced slavery, and became an early abolitionist.

    Benjamin Franklin is the only person to have signed four crucial American documents: the "Declaration of Independence" in 1776, Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Franklin is considered one of the Founding Fathers, along with George Washington. Franklin's likeness, since 1928, has adorned American $100 bills, among other issued money.

    Benjamin Franklin, One hundred dollar bill, StudySmarter"It's all about the Benjamins" is a famous rap song by Puff Daddy because of the iconic image of Benjamin Franklin. Wikimedia Commons.

    Benjamin Franklin: Political Career

    Benjamin Franklin's success as a newspaper editor and printer built his reputation in the Philadelphia community. As his wealth grew, so did his interest in confronting local power. Pennsylvania was a proprietary colony. The Penn family were the sole proprietors and selected their government officials. The Pennsylvania Assembly, a body of elected officials, could be easily overturned by the Penn family's influence. The assembly elected Benjamin Franklin as a representative and sent him to England. He ultimately failed to reduce the power of the Penn family but built his reputation as a champion of American interests. He was sent back to England to protest the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act sought to pay for Britain's wars by forcing colonists to pay higher stamp prices on various documents. He testified before the House of Commons, where the British parliament scrutinizes the government. While he was unable to prevent the passage of the Stamp Act initially, his testimony, among others, later persuaded the British parliament to repeal the act.2

    Proprietary colony - indirect, undemocratic rule through partition and charters granted by another authority.

    In 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote a series of pro-American satirical essays. His most famous was "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One", in which he created a fictional address to the ruler. The rules were thinly disguised grievances of the American colonies to the British Crown. In short, the British Empire would lose its American colonies if it persisted in taxes and regulations without the colonists' consent. It was well-received and further propelled Franklin into national politics. His contemporaries noted he would be an ideal example to represent American colonies' interests.

    In July 1775, Benjamin Franklin was elected to draft the "Declaration of Independence" barely after a month having returned to America from England. While Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft, Benjamin Franklin, with his decades of editorial experience, made key changes to the document.

    On July 26, 1775, the Second Continental Congress established the United States Post Office and elected Benjamin Franklin as the first United States postmaster general. Franklin had served as postmaster in Philadelphia for decades. He instituted reforms and raised more funding to increase the network and reliability of the post office, resulting in unprecedented weekly mail delivery.

    While abroad, Benjamin Franklin used London as a base to travel around Europe. He took trips to Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and France. His reputation preceded him, so he was easily introduced into influential social circles of power. As an ambassador to France, he secured a military alliance in 1778. In 1783, he helped formed the terms for ending the American War for Independence from Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris.

    When he returned to America, he was celebrated as a champion of American independence.

    Benjamin Franklin: Inventions

    Benjamin Franklin is known for creating many inventions. In accordance with his philosophy of civic duty and providing public goods, he did not patent any of his inventions. Many are still in use today and remain relatively unchanged.

    Lightning Rod

    Benjamin Franklin had previously done experiments with electricity and theorized that lightning was electricity. He proved his theory right with his famed kite experiment to catch an ambient electrical charge. Lightning was an unmitigated threat in Franklin's time, frequently destroying buildings, with townspeople at a complete loss in fighting the hazard. Franklin learned one could use a rod of iron positioned on the highest point of a building to attract lightning, grounded by a copper wire leading to the ground, to avoid catching fire.

    Franklin Stove

    In colonial America, a person heavily relied on wood to build their home and a fireplace to heat it. Fireplaces are not very energy efficient nor effective, as most of the heat is lost through the chimney. The Franklin stove is essentially an iron container that can radiate heat from all directions, can be placed within the home for more effective heating, and it safely keeps the fire from spreading. Furthermore, one can control the rate of burning by controlling the airflow. The basic framework is still in use today in many cabins and homes. If you see a standalone metal stove, it's very likely using the basic framework of the Franklin stove.

    Benjamin Franklin, portable Franklin stove, StudySmarterFranklin stoves are still common today. Wikimedia Commons.

    Bifocals

    To see off into the distance and up close, one had to have a pair of glasses for each view. Benjamin Franklin was the first to merge the two glasses into one pair—then called "double spectacles". Bifocal glasses have lenses with two parts. The upper portion allows the user to see farther distances, while the lower part is for objects close up, such as reading, when one typically glances downward.

    Benjamin Franklin, bifocals, StudySmarterFranklin literally merged two sets of lenses, as seen by the line. Nowadays the line on bifocals is invisible to the naked eye. Wikimedia Commons.

    Pro & Con List

    While it's very possible that such a decision-making tool existed before Franklin, he was the first known published example.3 He divided a piece of paper into two columns. One considers the possible positive and negative impacts of a particular decision on each side.

    Urinary Catheter

    Previously, catheters were inflexible, rigid metal tubes that were painful to insert into the urethra. His brother frequently had to use one and Franklin wanted to lessen his discomfort. Franklin had the insertion tube modified by a silversmith for more flexibility and comfort.

    Benjamin Franklin Quotes

    Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."(Poor Richard’s Almanack)

    In Benjamin Franklin's time, proverbs and adages were sources of wisdom. People felt that if someone had a saying for every situation, they were wise. While Franklin toyed with the notion of an Almanac as a source of wisdom, he also delighted in using them as a source of humor.

    Well done is better than well said."

    (Poor Richard's Almanack)

    Benjamin Franklin liked to take action and believed in civic duty. Even though he spent much of his career expressing his thoughts through his newspaper and books, he was quite active in his civic duty. The founder of many institutions, community service was a virtue and value he sought to propagate through his words and actions.

    We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

    (Franklin at the signing of the "Declaration of Independence")

    Later in life, Benjamin Franklin became very involved in the national politics of the British American colonies. He understood the direction that momentum was moving, and believed it almost inevitable for the colonies to break away from British rule. He figured it was better that they all "hang" together instead of separately. Hanging was the punishment for treason under the British Crown, and technically the signing of the "Declaration of Independence" was an act of treason under British rule.

    Benjamin Franklin - Key takeaways

    • Benjamin Franklin was an American founding father, statesman, diplomat, inventor, writer, and newspaperman.
    • He pioneered many civic institutions in the American colonies, such as the postal service, volunteer fire department, and the library systems.
    • He advocated American interests abroad, such as pushing for the repeal of unpopular legislation and forming international alliances.
    • He never patented his inventions and many are still in use today, such as the bifocals and Franklin Stove.

    1. Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2004)

    2. Thomas J. Fleming, Benjamin Franklin: an informal portrait (2004).

    3. Benjamin Franklin, "From Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestley, 19 September 1772". National Archives.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Benjamin Franklin

    Who is Benjamin Franklin? 

    Benjamin Franklin is a founding father, statesman, diplomat, inventor, writer, and newspaperman who pioneered many civic institutions in the American colonies, such as the postal service, volunteer fire department,  and libraries.

    What is Benjamin Franklin's philosophy? 

    Benjamin Franklin's philosophy centered on the virtues of contributing to the community and being a model of an upstanding citizen through one's actions.

    What is Benjamin Franklin most famous for?

    Benjamin Franklin is most famous for editing Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the "Declaration of Independence" and his kite experiment that proved lightning is electricity.

    What are 5 things Benjamin Franklin invented?

    Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, the Franklin stove, the "Pro and Con list", and a better urinary catheter.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Benjamin Franklin born?

    Benjamin Franklin was the ___ son to Josiah Franklin.

    Benjamin Franklin wrote and published Poor Richard's Almanac under which pseudonym?

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